Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen T.D., to the Dáil, 15 October 2002
A Cheann Comhairle,
I am disappointed to have to address the House under these circumstances. Yesterday's announcement and the developments which gave rise to it have highlighted the fact that we are, once again, entering a period of difficulties in the ongoing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, I wish to emphasise from the outset that these difficulties are not insurmountable, and above all that the Agreement itself has not been suspended. The Agreement is still the only agenda, and I have every hope that the Northern Ireland institutions will be restored in the near future.
As the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair said yesterday, the two Governments believe that it will be possible for the institutions to be restored, “in a way that will last without further disruption, once trust between the parties has been re-established”. The breakdown in trust between those involved will not be a simple issue to resolve – there are many layers of trust which need to be woven together on all sides and at all levels, from community relations at the interfaces to power-sharing at the highest level.
As the Taoiseach said earlier, the great political strides of recent times have, sadly, been accompanied by a decrease in levels of confidence in the commitment of some to the full operation of the Agreement. For that reason, it is essential that the transition to democracy, which is currently ongoing, be brought to completion. It is no longer possible for the use or threat of use of force or other non-democratic means to have any place in politics on this island. I firmly believe that this transition can and should be substantially advanced now.
Suspension is a very serious development, and is certainly not an outcome that any supporter of the Agreement would have wished for. But, in the absence of sufficient trust between the parties, let us focus our energies on the extremely challenging business in hand.
It is not in anyone's interests to allow a political vacuum to develop. Having brought the process to such an advanced state of progress, we cannot now renege on our responsibilities and let matters descend inexorably into stalemate. I need not remind Deputies of the dangers that, as we have seen to our cost over the years, are inherent in a political vacuum.
Equally, we cannot now simply allow the edifice of achievement the Good Friday Agreement embodies to be dismantled slowly, by a thousand cuts and erosions. The basic political fact of life is that the Agreement is the only sustainable basis for an accommodation that is acceptable, fair and honourable to both unionists and nationalists.
In the years since the signing of the Agreement in 1998, and its endorsement by the people, North and South, we have begun to see its enormous transforming potential. If anything, we have tended to take that transformation for granted. Since November 2001, when the institutions were restored after the first act of IRA decommissioning, the Executive and the Northern Ireland Ministers have clearly demonstrated the potential of partnership politics, based on mutual respect and equality.
The Executive, under the joint leadership of David Trimble and Mark Durkan, has achieved notable success, particularly since the IRA's move on decommissioning in October 2001, in bringing together representatives from both communities to work collectively with common purpose. The ‘real politics' which the work of the Executive represents made a substantial impact, with locally accountable Ministers taking decisions on matters of genuine importance and significance in the lives of the people of Northern Ireland; matters such as Agriculture, Industrial Promotion, Health and Education. The successful operation of the Executive has provided incontrovertible evidence that the values underpinning the Agreement - partnership, mutual respect and equality - can be brought to bear in a meaningful and practical way for the benefit of both nationalists and unionists alike.
The Assembly has also been operating very successfully. It has proved itself to be a forum that can withstand robust debate on controversial matters. The seriousness with which parliamentarians from all traditions have taken on their responsibilities is laudable. Their contributions, including in Committees scrutinising the work of Ministers and Departments, have been marked by commitment and diligence.
Meetings of Ministers from both parts of the island through the North/South Ministerial Council have become such a regular feature of Ministerial calendars, North and South, that there is no adverse comment when these meetings take place . The reason is because, at these meetings, Ministers from both parts of the island have been taking decisions that are benefiting all of our people in a practical and meaningful way and – in the process - promoting real partnership.
Similarly, all-island Implementation Bodies have been established under the Agreement and have now been in successful operation for over three years. They operate in sectors as diverse as Trade and Business Development and Food Safety Promotion, and their practical achievements are many. The All-Ireland tourism organisation, Tourism Ireland Limited, is a model of sensible co-operation in a sector that is economically vital on both sides of the border. The marketing campaigns of Tourism Ireland Limited are undoubtedly crucial to the well-being of the tourism industry throughout the island.
As I have already said, the Good Friday Agreement is the only basis for progress in Northern Ireland. We remain completely committed to its implementation, and will continue to work in every possible way to achieve this objective. The two Governments, therefore, will again need to create confidence in the management of the process on an ongoing basis. Our agenda is clear: we need to re-establish trust on all sides, to safeguard the Agreement's achievements to date and to secure progress on the areas which remain outstanding.
The bedrock of the Agreement is provided by the partnership of the two Governments, and this central relationship will continue to provide the underlying stability and support for the redevelopment of trust among the parties.
One of the ways in which the two Governments will continue to co-operate bilaterally is provided for under the Agreement itself. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was created under Strand Three of the Agreement. It allowed for the creation of the Conference and its standing Secretariat. The Conference provides a platform for co-operation between both Governments on all matters of mutual interest. However, it particularly recognises the Irish Government's special interest in Northern Ireland and the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in that regard. The Conference is tasked with meeting on non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, including, inter alia, the areas of rights, justice and policing. Meetings of the Conference are to be co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and it is our intention to meet in this format in the very near future.
However, I wish to emphasise that , contrary to some unhelpful speculation, the British –Irish Intergovernmental Conference is not, by any means, a method for the creation of joint authority by stealth, or a way in which power-sharing might be taken off the agenda in favour of an intergovernmental track. The Conference provides a basis for the ongoing co-operation that will facilitate the two Governments in the management of the process until the restoration of the institutions. While co-operating through the Conference, our ultimate aim is directed towards the full operation of the institutions, including the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive.
Both Governments are agreed that the North/South Implementation Bodies established under the Agreement and Tourism Ireland will continue. We will be working closely with the British Government in the period ahead to give practical effect to the need to ensure that these Bodies can carry out their important functions.
Since their establishment, these North-South organisations have flourished under the direction provided by the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive with over 700 people now employed throughout Ireland in locations such as Enniskillen, Cork, Scarriff, Newry and Omagh. In a short space of time, they have become a vital part of the economic and social fabric of the island.
In the critical area of policing, I share the Secretary of State's assessment of the Policing Board as one of the key achievements of the Agreement to date. Since its creation, the Board has shown that it is capable of dealing with controversial and sensitive issues in a positive and cohesive way. I was therefore glad to hear that its existing members will remain serving on the Board during the period of suspension, continuing their admirable work on the new beginning to policing. While much has been achieved on this issue, there is undoubtedly more to be done to bring the sought-after goal of a police service acceptable to all sides of the community to full operational reality.
We regard policing as a core element of the Agreement and will continue to drive forward the agreed agenda for change, including the introduction of the additional legislation by the British Government provided for under the revised Implementation Plan. The progress achieved on policing through the Agreement should not be materially affected by the suspension, and we will continue to work to move the agenda forward in the weeks and months ahead.
In the time since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement we have made serious progress on a wide and comprehensive agenda for the benefit of everyone on this island. This does not mean that we should lose sight of the need to move even further down that road towards a full normalisation of society, to make a clean break with those elements of the past which have no place in the new democratic dispensation.
The Agreement signalled the route map for a new beginning for a divided society. Yet, in recent times, and throughout a tense summer, we have witnessed a persistent roll-call of events we all hoped had been consigned to the past - sectarian murders, vicious sectarian attacks, pipe-bomb attacks, punishment beatings and shootings. There is simply no place for such activities in a democracy.
Continuing and effective policing reform is the best guarantee that the rule of law will prevail and that those responsible are made accountable for their criminal activities. Vulnerable communities are entitled to the protection of effective and consistent policing. Conversely, the PSNI, who undertake that difficult task, are entitled to expect the support of all the community whom they wish to serve.
As we work to bring a speedy end to the period of suspension, we need to make continuing progress on other aspects of the Agreement where full implementation has yet to be achieved. In this category, for example, I would cite the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which has yet to be brought to fruition. In addition, in the area of security normalisation, there may be scope for further progress on the removal of intrusive installations, without any negative impact on the capacity of the security forces to counter the operations of those who are determined to undermine the Agreement.
I wish to make clear to the House that the Government will be doing all within its power to secure an early restoration of the devolved institutions. Until the institutions are restored, we will work in close co-operation with the British Government to re-instil confidence and trust in the process, to continue to operate all parts of the Agreement which can be maintained and to implement those aspects which remain outstanding. There is a legislative commitment to the holding of Assembly elections on 1 May 2003, and I look forward to those taking place. In the final analysis, it is the people of Northern Ireland who must give their verdict on the custodians of devolved government. I sincerely hope that it will be possible to see a full restoration of the institutions before this milestone.
Side-by side with the institutional developments, we will work to ensure the implementation of other aspects of the Agreement which have been delivering benefits to all of the people - benefits in the areas of human rights, of equality, of reconciliation. These are essential in showing that the path of partnership and mutual respect can bring gains for all; in demonstrating beyond doubt that there is more to politics than a zero-sum game.
The two Governments do not underestimate the responsibility nor the challenge of working towards re-building confidence in each community, which is essential to the full operation and implementation of the Agreement. As guardians of the Agreement, we are willing to assume this responsibility and challenge, working in close co-operation with all of the parties. With their continued will and determination, the ongoing welcome and valuable support of this House and the democratic authority that the Agreement itself represents, I am confident that the devolved institutions can be restored and partnership politics again made a reality for the people of Northern Ireland in the challenging period ahead.
I believe that, if sufficient political will and courage is demonstrated, it remains possible for us to make the necessary quantum leap forward out of the present impasse. To achieve full implementation of the Agreement, every one and every party in the process needs to embark on a rendezvous with reality.Top